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The Cathars:
Their Nature, Origin and Demise

At the beginning of the second millenium of Christianity there was a crisis in Europe that arose from the discrepancy between the populace's notion of what a religious life should be and the way of life it saw being led by members of the Church hierarchy. The teachings of Christianity led people to believe that the ideal life was one of material poverty and spiritual devotion; the life of the apostles. But the Church was wealthy and few priests strove for the apostolic life. Worse yet there were some priests who led dissolute lives contrary to the precepts of Church. The common people could not believe that such individuals, even though ordained by the Church, could perform sacred services. The Church's position was that no matter what the personal behavior of a priest was, if he was ordained by the Church any ceremony performed by him was just as valid as one performed by a saintly priest. The heresies of the time arose because the people accepted the precept that it was a necessary condition for a priest to lead a proper life and he should strive for the apostolic ideal. From this position it was a small step to the position that a individual who led an apostolic life was better suited to act as priest than some who was ordained but did not strive for the apostolic life.

The Cathars were treated as heretics of Christianity by the Catholic Church, but the origin of the religion of the Cathars was quite strange. The doctrine of the Cathars had its origins in the religion of the Bogomils in the Balkans who in turn adopted elements of the Paulicians of Armenia. The Paulicians flourished in Armenia and elsewhere from 650 to 872 CE. They were accused by conventional Christian Church hierarchy of being derived from Manichaeism and of being Gnostic. The doctrine of the Paulicians was dualistic in nature which identified it as an alien religion having its roots in Iran rather than merely a heresy. The dualistic element held that the world was the creation of two forces; one good and one evil. The material world according to the Paulicians is the work of the evil force and it is role of the Paulician religion to divorce mankind as much as possible from materialism. This meant, among other things, abstinence from eating meat, drinking wine and engaging in sexual activities.

Bogomilism arose in Bulgaria in the middle of the 900's due to the preachings of the priest Bogomil. It followed the same dualistic principles as the Paulicians. During the 1000's and 1100's CE Bogomilism spread over the territorities of the Byzantine Empire. Its growth in Constantinople had become so significant that about the year 1100 the prominent leaders of Bogomilism in Constantinople were arrested and brought to trial. This resulted in Basil, the leader of the Bogomils, being publically burned. Nevertheless Bogomilism spread westward into Serbia and Bosnia. In Bosnia the nobility adopted the Bogomil faith and it became an element of Bosnian nationalism. From the Balkan Peninsula Bogomilism spread to Italy. Often it was adopted by occupational groups separated from the rest of society such as the charcoal burners.

By the middle of the 1100's an austere dualistic religion was spreading in Western Europe, particularly Southern France under the name Catharism, meaning the pure. Probably the dogma of the Cathar religion was derived from Manichaeism by way of the Paulicians and Bogomils although no direct historical link has been established, but just inferred from a similarity of doctrines. There was, however, another possible link between Southern France and Iranian culture. The Roman emperors brought Alans, a tribe of the Sarmatians, into France to help guard the Empire. The Alans spoke a language in the Iranian language family and presumably would have had some elements of Iranian culture, such as a dualistic view of the world. The Alans arrived in Orleans and other places in France centuries before the time of the Cathars but their descendants would have been there in the time of the Cathars and most likely belonged to the ruling families of the region.

However the lay converts to Catharism did not see it as a new religion but a purified form of Christianity. The lay converts could not aspire to the perfection of the serious devotees of Catharism so Cathar society consisted of the perfects and the believers who helped them in their quest for perfection. As Catharism evolved the Old Testament came to be suspected and Jesus became an angel instead of a son of God. But more significant for the Catholic hierarchy was the Cathar criticism of the worldliness and corruption of the Catholic Church.

Pope Innocent III tried to force the Count of Toulouse to join him in wiping out the Cathar heresy. But the representative of the Pope was murdered and the Church hierarchy felt that the Count of Toulouse was involved. The Pope gave up on relying upon nobles of Southern France to wipe out the heresy. Instead the Papacy sought the aid of barons from Northern France to carry out an Albigensian Crusade. This crusade massacred the population of Toulouse and Provence. After it was over the Catholic hierarchy continued the persecution with an Inquisition-like campaign. In 1244 a last stronghold of the Cathar perfects, a fortress near the southern border of France in the Pyrenees, was captured and destroyed effectively ending organized Catharism.


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